“It takes courage to love again when you’ve been hurt. It takes pain and strength, again, to pack it all away; somewhere in all the pain, somebody has to have the courage, to be Okay.” — Poem, “The Courage to Love”
When we think of 9/11, we rightly remember the tragedy and abject horror of the day. Yet, I believe that the single greatest lesson and take-away from September 11, 2001 for us all, is the redeeming and nurturing power of love.
Love is what we were made for. It is the one thing that can lift even the darkest of clouds from our memory, and propel us to continue forward. Love sustains us, feeds us, and heals us.
After all, it was the love and dedication of brave firefighters that caused them to rush headlong into burning buildings to save complete strangers.
It was the love and loyalty of husbands and wives who called their spouses from cell phones to say “I am not coming home to see you one last time, but know that I am always with you”.
It was the love of the passengers on flight 93 that saved our nation’s capitol from yet another terrible blow.
It was the love of a grieving nation that caused us to take hold of one another across color, class and political lines.
And it is the undying love of our military men and women that has kept this nation safe and free from further attack for the past nine years, as some of them have paid the ultimate price with their lives.
And so as we remember on this day what we lost as a nation, I wanted to share a story about a man, a woman, his son, and what they gained in the aftermath of 9-11.
A wife lost her life; a husband lost his wife; a son, his mother. And from the ashes of this unspeakable grief, a man learned to open his heart to love again. In came a special woman, a mother for a son, new life from their union, and a new beginning.
The Day that Changed Everything
Andrew Bass is a somewhat guarded, tall (he is 6’5), handsome, professional black man of 42 years, who is also an award-winning creative arts director and New York City college professor. He has a great New Yorker candor and a sense of humor that makes you smile.
On September 11, 2001, he was a 32-year-old Brooklyn resident starting his second day at a new job downtown. He was a happily married man, and the proud father of a 13-month-old son who was just learning to walk. His wife of 8 years, Felicia (who he proudly met through the Village Voice personals in 1993), had so wanted a baby. After having suffered a miscarriage, at age 36 Felicia gave birth to a son the following year.
Their lives were full. All was going according to their plans. Life was good for the Bass family.
Enter September 11, 2001.
That morning, Felicia awoke early to go into her office in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. She was going in early to cover for a sick colleague at the Alliance Consulting Group.
Andrew recalls that morning vividly. “The sun was very bright. My wife always got up earlier than me. She was such a warm and friendly person. And she opened the window and the sun came in. I was like, ‘who turned the lights on?’ She laughed at me and kissed me goodbye and wished me well on the new job. I said ‘thank you.’ and she left.”
What happened next was surreal.
Andrew’s voice shakes a little and quiets as he recounts what unfolded.
“The baby sitter came in to take care of my son. I was getting dressed. The baby sitter told me something had happened — that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was like, ‘what?’ I looked at the TV and my heart sank. I saw it was the North Tower. I saw the gaping hole and I saw where it was and I knew it was near Felicia’s office.”
“I immediately tried to dial my wife,” he continued. “Then the phone rang. It was her. I heard something in her voice; something I had never heard before. She was panicked. She told me something had happened — that the building ‘rocked’. She asked me to call the police. I clicked over and tried to dial the police, but I kept getting a busy signal. When I finally got through, the operator said they were aware of the situation and they were in the process of responding.”
When Andrew clicked back over, his wife’s line was gone. Although he tried to call back over and over again, he would never speak to her again. “It is a day I will never forget. I don’t think you ever heal from something like this. I am still not completely healed,” he said.
Dealing with grief, and learning to love again
Like tens of millions of Americans on the morning of September 11, 2001, Andrew had sat spellbound near his television, fielding calls from family and friends who knew Felicia worked at the World Trade Center.
Felicia Traylor Bass was an only child, whose mother had passed a few years earlier. Her father was estranged.
Andrew said he knew intuitively that he would never see her again, because the first plane that struck the North Tower was centered near her office, where she worked as an administrative/human resources specialist.
He said although he was hoping against hope that she would get out, he knew in his heart that the firefighters could not get up to where the fire raged. Andrew then asked the babysitter to take his son out of the house because he did not want him to be affected by the emotion of the events.
Fast forward to the weeks and months — which turned into years — after Felicia’s passing. Andrew says the hardest days were telling his infant son that “mommy had gone away to the sky and was not coming back”. He confesses he often drank too much Jack & Coke, and spent much of his time alone with his son.
Although he did go to grief counseling, he often dialed the numbers of friends from college or family late at night. They would hear his cries into the wee hours of the morning.
One of those old friends was Karen Taylor.
Both native New Yorkers, Karen and Andrew had been good friends since college, and stayed loosely connected through the years. Karen who is a well established public relations expert and publicist who has worked with talent like Jill Scott. She is a powerhouse packed in a small frame. She is also warm, friendly, and loyal. When 9/11 happened, Karen was one of the first to call “Drew” as she calls him, but she would not connect with him again until late in 2002.
Late one rainy night in that latter year, when Andrew had just won a prestigious Ozzie design award, he broke down and cried because his wife was not there to share it with him. He went home, relieved the baby sitter, and dialed Karen’s number. He said she was always awake, always working, and he knew she would take his call. He called and asked her to “just listen”. She agreed. He said what he liked about her was that she operated in a “no judge zone” — she listened, made no comments, and encouraged him. She was a friend in the truest sense of the word. Andrew said talking to her was “cathartic” for him.
But it wasn’t until December of 2002 that Andrew decided he wanted to live again. The turning point for him was a conversation he had with a woman who had also lost her spouse to the 9/11 terror attacks. He asked her how was she able to move forward and love again. She replied, “You have to live life for yourself, your children and your spouse who has died. They would not want us to live life alone with no love.”
By 2003, Andrew started to go out and be more sociable, and even go on dates.
Karen, his friend and confidante, set him up with a myriad of girlfriends who were “tall” as she puts it, but the dates had not gone well.
Andrew finally tired of empty dating. He craved meaningful female companionship. He says his life perspective started to change from a dim and dark one, to one that was lighter. But for Karen, their long-term friendship took an unexpected twist when they were at a party together in February 2003 and she want to “kiss” Drew.
“I had a few drinks,” she laughs, “but there was something about Drew that night that was both calming and fun. And I wanted to kiss him and I asked him could I kiss him and he was like, ‘no.’”
They both laugh.
A few months later, Andrew invited Karen on a trip to Jamaica to have “fun”. He told her she was his third choice because the other women he wanted to invite could not go. Karen, who was dating someone at the time, decided to go because it was “free” and she felt comfortable just hanging out with Drew.
Needless to say, and much to their mutual surprise the trip went very well — they connected, they laughed; people kept saying what a nice couple they made, and they finally kissed with Jimmy Buffet playing in the background to the island breeze.
The rest, as they say, is history. Drew asked Karen to marry him just months later and they were married on July 18, 2004. They had their daughter Sofia on June 15, 2007.
Building a new family and honoring a mother’s memory
I asked Karen what this journey has been like for her, having to become a mom to a special little boy named Sebastian (now 11) in the shadow of his own mother, a woman he will never know.
“I have never tried to replace Felicia,” Karen says. “She will always be my son’s mom. We have a picture of her up in his bedroom. Drew put together a trunk of her personal things for his son and we will always honor her memory.”
“Andrew celebrates Felicia’s life daily in how he lives and I support him,” Karen continues. “He has taught his son by example to be resilient, and not to give up during adversity.”
As for Andrew, he says that it was not until Sebastian was about 8 years old that they started to have conversations about what happened to his mom. He mentioned that he and his son had a conversation this past weekend about the 9/11 memorials, and why he did not want their family to participate.
He pauses, and then speaks briefly about Osama Bin Laden.
“Sebastian had very strong feelings about the death of Osama Bin Laden. He felt a sense of closure that the person who had done this to his mom was now dead. I share his feelings.”
The story of Andrew, Felicia, Sebastian, Karen and now little Sofia is one that may be somewhat unfamiliar to us in the aftermath of 9/11. As Andrew points out in an article he penned** about the sometimes invisible victims of the terror attacks, we have seen very few images and stories of the African-Americans lost on 9/11.
I asked Andrew what parting advice he has for those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and who had not yet healed. I also asked him to speak about the importance of living each day to the fullest even when tested by great tragedy or adversity.
“If we shut down and close ourselves off after a loss, in an ironic way we are diminishing the memory of those we loved,” Andrew said. “Our loved ones would not want us to stop living. They would not want us to stay in a solitary moment in time. My life changed for the better because I opened my heart to love. I wanted to be fully alive again. From pain there is beauty after, if we allow ourselves to embrace it. You cannot walk around dead in a living body. Life is way too short. Live your life and in doing so honor the memory of the one you lost.”
I could not agree with Andrew more, and as we reflect and remember our fellow Americans who lost their lives ten years ago today, a scripture comes to mind from the book of Ecclesiastes: “there is a time to mourn, and a time to heal.” My prayer today is that all who are broken, hurt, or lost will let love find them and begin to heal.
Sophia A. Nelson is author of the new book, “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama” (Benbella, May 2011).